The impact of poison. Impressive solutions from the real and the virtual world helps Ranganathan Reddy recover.
By Sujata Devadas, January 10, 2018
At the age of 20, Ranganathan Reddy’s working life took off when he got a receptionist’s job at a Chennai hotel. Enterprising by nature, he used his salary to start a small travel agency. It flourished and his financial prospects rose. Ranga married.
6 years later, in 1986, he lost his wife and their infant as she underwent a caesarian section operation. As Ranga grieved over his loss, his mother died. Bereft Ranga lost his sense of direction and drifted through life in bad company.
He came to his senses 3 years later. He sold his property in Chennai and accepted the job of a waiter. In Jaipur, Udaipur, Dehradun, Himachal Pradesh and in Simla, his career in hospitality experience rose. He worked as a head waiter, a bar man and as a room-service steward. Conversations with tourists gave him fluency in English. He loved to read.
The 2nd blow
In 2004, he returned to South India. One evening, two years later, in drunken stupor Ranga drank either a shaving lotion or a cleaning solution that shrunk his optic nerves. He lost his eyesight.
Unable to bring about any improvement, Dr. Asha Warrier, ophthalmologist at Thrissur District Hospital referred him to Trichur Medical College(TMC). “It is unclear what poisonous solution he drank. The treatment is to withdraw the toxin and supportive measures.” says Dr.Thresika Uvaraj, Associate Professor of ophthalmology at TMC at the time, “But he reached us too late.Ranga suffered bilateral toxic optic neuropathy.”
As immediate healthcare measure, the inflammation of his optic nerves was controlled with methyl prednisolone at TMC. He was given B12 injections. “I stayed in this hospital for 2 months and faced total darkness." Ranga recollects. "Inside the room or to go to the bathroom, I had to feel my way across the furniture.”
On January 15th morning (2007), when Dr. Thresika arrived for duty, she parked her car and walked directly to Ranga’s room. “I hope, Mr.Reddy, that you are brave.” she said. “Your eyesight is gone forever. There is no cure. Learn to live without it.” Clinically diagnosed 100 percent blind, without any remedy, Ranga was discharged from TMC.
“In simple language, Dr.Thresika told me how I became blind.” recounts Ranga. “There is no method to bring back shrunken optic nerves and restore its normal function.”
“My trivial amount of my eyesight varied with the extent and angle of light. I bump into a hazy object that appears to be a few meters away, but is right in front of me” explains Ranga. “A blurred
object that seems right in front of me, is actually several metres away. Clearly, my eyesight fails to give me the correct distance. It could be a blurred vision or nothing at all. Simply unreliable.”
Inevitably, the shock caused depression and bouts of irrational anger. Ranga’s greatest source of strength was Joy, a volunteer who helped unattended patients at TMC. Joy cared enough to tell Ranga about a Retreat Centre at Muringoor, 32 kms away and accompanied him there. Ranga received counselling during his fortnight’s stay there.
Earning to live
He had no training to adapt to blindness and no accessory device. Ranga left the Centre still wearing their ID tag. “I stumbled along, holding a few clothes in a bag and Rs.1500/- in my wallet. Unaware that the width of that road was being expanded, my uncertain steps moved into the cordoned off construction area. Other pedestrians shouted frantic instructions to prevent me from having a stupid accident” he recalls.
“Then I bumped into Thekkan restaurant’s security guard. Minutes later, I stepped off this road to enter the restaurant and order coffee. As I sipped coffee, I heard the staff’s agitated exchange - the woman who washed dishes had not come. I turned towards their voices and said, “I was a waiter earlier. Now I am blind. I can wash the dishes. Will you give me the job?”
Ranga got the job and washed dishes there for a year. The considerate staff gave him food and accommodation.
In spite of Dr.Thresika’s statement that a cure was absent, Ranga saved his slim
Rs.80/- salary to buy a ticket in March 2008 and travel to Delhi and consult
medical experts in the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), ignorant
that Indian Railways has a discounted fare for the blind to travel.
25 days in Delhi, AIIMS medical consultation brought no success. Savings
depleted, Ranga returned to Kerala and another job washing cooking utensils at
City Centre Hotel, next to the Kozhikode railway station.
Blindness and optical distortion
By now, rather than total darkness, Ranga could detect colour contrasts. “I can discern a blurred black or brown electric board fitted into a white wall. Or the outline of a person’s head dressed completely in white, even though I cannot see the rest of the body. If a computer is active, the light from its monitor gives the outline of the person’s head seated in front of it. If a room's walls are a light shade, then I can see the outline of someone’s head present inside it. The perception of distance though, is all wrong.”
Moving Up with JAWS
Among all the different employment reservations, the Indian government reserves 3% in public sector undertakings for the disabled under the 1995 Persons With Disabilities Act. Thousands among them are unemployed; they get by selling lottery tickets. Ranga notes wryly, "dishwashing is not an occupation listed for the blind." He lived by it.
Ranga met Dr.Thresika again in 2008 to obtain a visual disability certificate for a bus pass and for a white cane. They stayed in touch. Dr.Thresika knows institutions and people that help the blind. So she told Ranga about the Kerala Federation of the Blind (KFB) and its educational course in basic computer skills, making umbrellas and fixing broken ones, making cane chairs, candles, pappadams, binding books and repairing other objects to the blind. Ranga did not care. He just wanted to learn Braille and read.
However, association with KFB brought their course on ‘Job Access With Speech’(JAWS) screen reader to his attention. KFB gave free food and accommodation to all its students. It faced severe fund shortage and could not buy JAWS.
So it used the demo version to teach its students and emphasise the scope of this software. Ranga joined the 6-month course in June 2008. With JAWS, its synthesised voice and basic computer skills, Ranga began to read and type again.
The ‘online’ advantage
He saved from his wages to buy a used laptop and what was possibly a pirated version of JAWS. He could not pay for an internet connection. But Ranga collected text files and word documents to read again.
In 2010, Ranga did one more computer course run with excellent professional skill by the Society for the Rehabilitation of Visually Challenged (SRVC) sponsored by the Kochi Rotary Club(Global) in Kakkanad.
He got free accommodation, but no food. So Ranga’s employers allowed him to take the weekends off and attend the course. 2 months later, the weekend classes were cancelled. Ranga quit his job, attended regular classes and completed the course.
Equipped with relevant skills, Ranga applied for jobs online. The offers of Rs.6000/- to Rs.8000/- per month by call centres or a hotel (as Room Service Order Taker) did not give food or accommodation. “That money was insufficient to live in Kochi. I returned to dishwashing. Years of this job, rapid hand and wrist movements, hours of standing gave me arthritis and intolerable pain.” says Ranga.
Reaching Our Home
Good fortune dawned when Ranga met call centre staff Siju and Saranya while working the night shift as a dishwasher in the cafeteria of Sutherland Global Services, Kerala’s biggest call centre. These friends were instrumental in Ranga meeting Dinesh Babu.
“Conversations while lunching with Dinesh’s family always centred around the fascinating facts I discovered from reading. In September 2015, Dinesh took me to meet his close friend Chacko K Mathew. The founder of Our Home, Chacko’s grass-roots organisation gives 45 homeless and orphaned children a residence and a sense of family. Dinesh introduced me to Chacko saying, “ ‘This man can teach’. He elaborated on what I knew.”
Chacko offered Ranga accommodation in Our Home, as well as the chance to teach students at The Good Shepherd Public School - with classes up to Grade 7.
15 children living at Our Home receive free formal education at this school owned by Chacko. “I teach these kids with ambitions to become fashion designers and commercial pilots, the importance of awareness.” says Ranga. “I teach them why accountability and
responsibility are valuable. I cover the origin of civilisation, waste management, water conservation, the critical importance of rivers, how human beings adapted to their use and the ways they are used now. This is not part of their school syllabus. I ask questions to check their comprehension.” Other children from Our Home attend another school in the vicinity carrying their lunch packs with them.
Good Shepherd Public School teachers with Ranganathan Reddy seated at the centre and Chacko K Mathew's wife Avi to his right
Coincidence and DAISY
Coincidentally, Ranga met Vasanthy Gopalan as she lunched with a friend in
Kunnamkulam. President of the non-profit charitable Kanika Women’s Forum (KWF), Vasanthy listened to Ranga’s short description of his life and his new role as a teacher. She enquired how KWF could help him and Ranga replied.
On Indian independence day, August 2015, KWF gave Ranga a gift : the portable DAISY Player(Digital Accessible Information System). Overjoyed, Ranga uses it now to read, teach and listen to music.
Designed specifically for people with ‘print disabilities’ (blindness, impaired vision and dyslexia), this open source software reads out digital text. Its tactile buttons and a sequential, hierarchical navigational structure enables readers to go to the next or the previous sentence, chapter or page.Encyclopaedias can be consulted with it; a task impractical with conventional playback software.
Wide open limitless access
Using JAWS, DAISY and the internet, Ranga joined BookShare, the world’s largest online library for people with print disabilities. This global literacy initiative, founded by social entrepreneur and former rocket scientist Jim Fruchterman, is available for users with print disabilities around the world to access 581,928 titles including copyrighted books at the same time as their peers, contributed by 820 U.S. and international publishers.
A measure of satisfaction
Ranga attaches a speaker to DAISY to teach children, pausing after a few
sentences to explain. Then he checks their comprehension through questions.
Our Home resident Ranga is thoroughly happy to share knowledge with
the next generation, constantly looking out for audio and video clips in Malayalam and in simple English on ecological issues - pollution control, reusing/recycling plastic, water saving techniques - to instill an understanding of the incredible value of natural resources.
Ranga has donated his body to Thrissur Medical College. “The relevant papers are with my friend and benefactor, Chacko.” he says. “When I die, young medical students will study this body.”
Spread the message wide and wider for all visually impaired people to read and understand. In Braille, if possible. Ranga will be immensely pleased that all his efforts have spilled over to touch others in a similar situation and has benefitted them too. For those who lost their eyesight, good possibilities still exist.